The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Seeing some parallels to their own struggle, veterans of the civil rights movement from the 1960s have joined the fight against Arizona-style legislation targeting illegal immigration.
In Georgia, state lawmakers are poised to vote on two bills that would empower police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and punish people caught transporting and harboring illegal immigrants.
Such legislation, civil rights activists warn, could bring about the same kind of discrimination and racial profiling African-Americans struggled against decades ago. They have been delivering fiery speeches against House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40 and marching alongside Hispanic activists in Georgia and in other states in recent months.
There is a sharp division among blacks on this issue, however, with some arguing illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from African-American U.S. citizens and burdening public schools and hospitals in black communities.
Both immigration bills could come up for votes in the final days of this year’s legislative session in Georgia next week.
Critics of these bills — including farmers, landscape companies and restaurant owners — have largely focused on the harm they say the legislation would inflict on the state’s economy, which relies heavily on migrant labor. But racial profiling and discrimination also have emerged as central themes in the debate, especially during recent marches and rallies in Atlanta.
Last month, civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, joined thousands of people protesting the legislation outside the state Capitol. Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis expressed solidarity with Hispanic activists and said he was willing to go to jail with them in the fight against the state’s proposed immigration enforcement measures.
“We are all brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter whether we are black, white, Latino, Asian-American, Native American. We are one people. We are one family,” Lewis said, eliciting cheers. “We all live in the same house. If any one of us is illegal, then we all are illegal. There are no illegal human beings.”
The Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s Coalition for the People’s Agenda also have been outspoken against these bills.
On Tuesday, the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, a longtime civil rights activist, marched in downtown Atlanta with scores of demonstrators protesting restrictions targeting illegal immigrant students. Calling the debate over illegal immigration “the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” McDonald said he sees parallels between the struggles of the 1960s and today.
“Ultimately, it is about discrimination,” said McDonald, pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. “They are targeting a particular group as African-Americans were targeted.”
McDonald said he was struck by how some of the illegal immigrant students who demonstrated near Georgia State University on Tuesday blocked traffic for about an hour by sitting in the middle of the road. They were trying to bring national attention to their protest against a ban on illegal immigrants attending some Georgia colleges. Their act of civil disobedience reminded McDonald of King’s nonviolent tactics.
Other black civil rights activists, meanwhile, have been fighting similar measures across the nation. For example, the NAACP joined the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund last year in suing to block Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 from taking effect.
The Atlanta area’s African-American community, meanwhile, is divided on HB 87 and SB 40.
Everett Robinson, an African-American salesman from Marietta, said the emphasis on civil rights is misplaced in Georgia’s debate.
“To compare it to a civil rights issue — in my mind, it is ludicrous to do that,” said Robinson, a board member with the Georgia-based Dustin Inman Society, which advocates enforcement of U.S. immigration and employment laws. “How can you do it? They aren’t citizens.”
Catherine Davis, an African-American who lives in Stone Mountain, has a similar view.
“I can see every day the impact that illegal immigration is having on the black community,” said Davis, the former director of minority outreach for Georgia Right to Life. “We have so many problems in our community, from education to employment to life. You name it.
“I scratch my head at many of our so-called black civil rights leaders that are so quick to accept that these people have come here illegally and to treat them as if they are entitled to the same measure of protection that we fight for every day in this country.”